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January 2, 1900 – American statesman and diplomat John Hay announces the Open Door Policy to promote trade with China

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John Hay

John Hay

The Open Door Policy is a term in foreign affairs initially used to refer to the policy established in the late 19th century and the early 20th century that would allow for a system of trade in China open to all countries equally.

It was used mainly to mediate the competing interests of different colonial powers in China. Under the policy, none of them would have exclusive trading rights in a specific area.

In the late 20th century, the term also describes the economic policy initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 to open up China to foreign businesses that wanted to invest in the country. The latter policy set into motion the economic transformation of modern China.

The late 19th century policy was enunciated in US Secretary of State John Hay’s Open Door Note, dated September 6, 1899 and dispatched to the major European powers.

It proposed to keep China open to trade with all countries on an equal basis and to keep any power from totally controlling the country and called upon all powers, within their spheres of influence to refrain from interfering with any treaty port or any vested interest, to permit Chinese authorities to collect tariffs on an equal basis, and to show no favors to their own nationals in the matter of harbor dues or railroad charges.

Open Door policy was rooted in the desire of businesses in the United States to trade with Chinese markets.

The policy won support of all the rivals, and it also tapped the deep-seated sympathies of those who opposed imperialism by its policy pledging to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity from partition.

It had no legal standing or enforcement mechanism, but it was not violated, and China was not partitioned the way that Africa had been in the 1880s and the 1890s. However, the policy humiliated the Chinese because its government was not consulted, which created long-lasting resentment.

In the 20th-century and 21st-century, scholars such as Christopher Layne in the neorealist school have generalized the use of the term to applications in ‘political’ open door policies and ‘economic’ open door policies of nations in general, which interact on a global or international basis.

The theory of the Open Door Policy originated with British commercial practice, as reflected in treaties concluded with the Qing dynasty China after the First Opium War (1839–42).

The Open Door concept was first seen at the Berlin Conference of 1885, which declared that no power could levy preferential duties in the Congo.

As a concept and policy, the Open Door Policy was a principle that was never formally adopted via treaty or international law.

It was invoked or alluded to but never enforced as such. The policy collapsed in 1931 when the Japanese seized and kept Manchuria, despite international disapproval.

Technically, the term Open Door Policy is applicable only before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

After Deng Xiaoping took power in 1978, the term referred to China’s policy of opening up to foreign business that wanted to invest in the country, which set into motion the economic transformation of modern China.

Tony Simon

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